33 – Hebrews 9:4-5: The Ark of the Covenant

Hebrews 9:4-5

“Associated with the Holiest of All was the golden censer for burning incense and an ark covered entirely with gold. Inside the ark was a golden jar containing manna, Aaron’s staff that once blossomed, and the tables of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments. The Cherubim, symbolizing God’s glory, overshadowed the place where the atonement was made. But concerning these things, we cannot now go into great detail.”

The Golden Censer

The recipe for the incense was comprised of rare and costly ingredients. It probably emitted a fragrance that seemed to belong to another world (Ex. 30:34). The sweet aroma rising from the golden altar represented ascending prayers. David hoped his petitions would go up as an aroma pleasing to the Lord (Ps. 141:2). The golden altar is near God’s throne in heaven – its incense typifying the prayers of the saints (Rev. 8:3-5).

The writer here refers to its use on the Day of Atonement when the high priest burned it in a censer before the mercy seat (Lev. 16:12-13). Morning and evening the priests were required to offer incense to God (Ex. 30:1-10). This holy incense was forbidden to be used outside the tabernacle (Ex. 30: 37-38). Many years later, when King Uzziah usurped priestly authority and offered it to God, he instantly became a leper (II Chron. 26:16-21).

There is no discrepancy, as some allege, regarding the position of the altar of incense (Ex. 30:6). While the writer of Hebrews seems to place it inside the Holiest of All, the term “censer” (thumiaterion) can refer either to a censer or an incense altar. This riddle is solved when one realizes the context of the writer’s thoughts centers on priestly activities on the annual Day of Atonement. The golden altar of incense was not physically inside the inner sanctuary, but near its veil. When he mentions the Holiest of All had the altar of incense, the word had means “belonging to” or “connected with” (9:4). Because of its intimate association with the Holiest of All, the writer views it as being within that area. However, his intent is not to specify exact locations of tabernacle furnishings, but to show the connection between the offering of incense and the Holiest of All. 

Once a year on the Day of Atonement the high priest filled his golden censer with live coals from the altar of sacrifice (Lev. 16:12-13). He then entered the Holiest of All and placed fine incense on the coals in the censer, symbolically filling the room with the ascending prayers of the people. He also sprinkled blood on the mercy seat about this same time, emblematic of prayers moving upward toward Jehovah as atonement for sin is made (Lev. 16:12-14). The close association between incense and the sacrificial altar on the Day of Atonement combine the concepts of prayer and sacrifice. 

The Ark of the Covenant

The first item made for the tabernacle, constructed at Sinai, became Israel’s most sacred object (Ex. 25:10-22 & 37:1). The word “ark” simply means “a box” or “a coffer,” but this one was built of gold-covered acacia wood with golden angels on the top. The primary symbolic value of the ark was its cover (the mercy seat) for that was the place of reconciliation. God is pictured as “dwelling between the cherubim” (I Sam. 4:4). Because God had promised to dwell in the midst of the Israelites, it was essential His presence be represented by something extreemly special. But this golden chest was also needed to house God’s sacred law. When the ark was completed, Moses told the priests to place the tables inside it (Deut. 31:24-27). His commandments within the ark helped define God as their Ruler. It was also perfectly suited for the preservation of a pot of manna and Aaron’s rod. The physical contents served as appropriate reminders of the people’s spiritual history with Jehovah (Heb. 9:4).

The Ark was known by various names:

1. The Ark of the Testimony (Ex. 25:22)
2. The Ark of the Lord God (I Kgs. 2:26)
3. The Ark of God (I Sam. 3:3)
4. The Holy Ark (II Chron. 3:3)
5. The Ark of Thy Strength (Ps. 132)
6. The Ark of Jehovah (Josh. 3:13)

The ark was housed in the tabernacle during the forty years of Israel’s desert pilgrimage. However, nothing suggests that Jehovah “lived” inside the ark. The people were blessed by its presence (Num. 14:42), but were never taught it contained magical properties. The ark was not a fetish (II Sam. 15:2). Although heathen nations saw it as having inherent powers of its own (I Sam. 4:6-8), God did not want the ark to become an object of worship, as did the brass serpent (Num. 21:4).

As the physical representation of the presence of Jehovah, the ark was the singular item behind the veil in the Holiest of All. The sanctity of the innermost cubical in the tabernacle was clearly indicated by its contents. As the tabernacle was central to the camp, so the ark was central to the tabernacle. In fact, the entire tabernacle was built primarily as a safe habitation and environment for the ark. Carefully protected and guarded, an unauthorized touch brought immediate death (Num. 4:15). Few but the high priest ever saw the ark, for it was never exposed to the general population. Even when transported, it was covered to protect it from worldly contamination and prying eyes. Although there were no daily, weekly, or monthly duties associated with the ark, its use became clear on the Day of Atonement. Had this sacred chest been eliminated from tabernacle ceremonialism, all other Levitical rituals would have been meaningless.

The History of the Ark

The ark led the way when the Israelites traveled (Num. 10:33-36). It was the visible point of contact with the One who is invisible. Through the prophet Nathan, God pictured Himself (represented by the ark) as One who had “wandered about in a tent” since the Israelites left Egypt (II Sam. 7:6). When the overshadowing cloud moved, it indicated the Israelites were to relocate. The ark, carried by Levites, preceded the people by a three day journey (Num. 10:33).

On the banks of the Jordan, the waters did not cease to flow until the feet of the priests bearing the ark touched its waters (Josh. 3:15-17). Midway across the river, the priests stopped while the people filed past them into Canaan. The ark then resided at Gilgal (Josh. 4:11), but would soon be carried around Jericho seven times to gain the victory (Josh. 6:6-16). The ark was present at the ceremony at Mount Ebal and Gerizim when the law was read (Josh. 8:33). The tabernacle for the ark was later erected at Shiloh (Josh. 18:1).

Believing the presence of the ark would guarantee them victory, the Israelites brought it into a battle with the Philistines (I Sam. 4:3-11). Instead it was captured and brought to Ashdod, where judgment befell the Philistines (I Sam. 5:1-11). After seven months, they sent the ark to Beth-shemesh (I Sam. 6:11-12) where 50,070 men died after some dared to look inside it (I Sam. 6:19). Having recovered it, the Israelites then took it to Kiriath Jearim where it remained for twenty years in the house of Abinadab (I Sam. 7:1-2).

David ordered the ark to be brought to his new capital city of Jerusalem (II Sam. 6:1-4). On the way there, Uzziah touched it and was immediately struck dead (II Sam. 6:6). Out of fear and respect for God, David then housed it for three months in the home of Obed-edom (II Sam. 6:.6-12), after which it was taken to Jerusalem with great ceremony (II Sam. 6:13-18). The ark was in the Israelite encampment while they fought the Ammonites (II Sam. 11:11). Years later, it finally rested in Solomon’s magnificent temple (II Chron. 5:7). It was apparently removed for protection during the reign of the apostate King Manasseh when he desecrated the temple with an idol (II Chron. 33:7). However, when King Josiah came to power, he commanded the ark be restored to the sanctuary (II Chron. 35:3). 

The saga of the ark ended in 586 B.C. when Nebuchadnezzar and the Chaldeans sacked Jerusalem, burned the temple and carried off the spoils to Babylon. There is no Biblical reference to the ark in the later temples of Ezra and Herod. Having served its purpose, the final disposition of the ark is unknown. However, there is one prophetical allusion to its disappearance. Jeremiah wrote of a future time when no one will be concerned about the ark (Jer. 3:15-16). True to the writer’s statement in the previous section, such things fade into obscurity and ultimately “vanish away” (Jer. 8:13).

This sacred chest contained some manna, Aaron’s rod, and God’s Ten Commandments.

1. The Golden Pot of Manna

A pot containing two quarts of manna was placed in the ark as a memorial of the forty years the manna fell (Ex. 16:33). It was fitting that an emblematic jar of “angels food” be preserved for posterity (Ps. 78:25). But manna had a short shelf life, putrefying after only one day (Ex. 16:20). Consequently, it could only have survived in the ark for decades supernaturally. When speaking of manna, Jesus said He was the “true bread” which came down from heaven and gave life to the world (Jn. 6:31-33). Jesus promised those who overcome will partake of “the hidden manna” (Rev. 2:17).

2. The Rod of Aaron

When Aaron’s authority was called into question, a representative from each of the twelve tribes presented a rod to Moses. He laid them in the sanctuary. The next day, Aaron’s rod miraculously blossomed and yielded almonds. Life had come forth from his dead staff. The rod served as God’s affirmation of the Aaronic priesthood and it was preserved in the ark in perpetual remembrance of his divine appointment (Num. 17:1-1). 

The rod and pot of manna were placed in the ark for safekeeping (Ex. 16:33). However, when the ark arrived at Solomon’s temple, nothing was in it except the stone tables (I Kgs. 8:9). It is possible both the rod and the manna were lost while the ark was with the Philistines, for neither are mentioned after that time.

3. The Tables of the Covenant

Just three months since their deliverance from Egypt, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai (Ex. 20:1-17). Angry with the people who had sinned, Moses broke this set of tablets (Ex. 32:19). The Lord later told him to engrave another set which was placed in the ark (Ex. 34:28 & Deut. 10:2-4). In Scripture, these tablets are known by various names:

“His covenant” (Deut. 4:13)
“The ten commandments” (Deut. 4:13)
“The tables of the covenant” (Deut 9:9)
“The testimony” (Ex. 25:16)
“The two tables of testimony” (Ex. 31:18)
“The words of the covenant” (Ex. 34:28).

No other tangible objects were given by God to so dramatically. They were literally “etched in stone” on Sinai. These laws are so essential, they resided in the most sacred place on earth: the ark (Ex. 40:20).

The tables given to Moses were a revelation of God’s personal character and values. They are primarily prohibitions, for human beings need to be told specifically what they must not do. His laws have a quality of permanence as unchangeable as God Himself. The first four concern one’s relationship with God and the last six deal with our relationship with others. Taken together, they cover the entire range of obligations to God and man. Obedience to these commandments served as a continual ratification of His covenant. Disobedience was considered a breach of its terms (Deut. 31:20).

The Ten Commandments help formulate the lifestyle of Believers, for Christ reaffirmed their validity and importance (Mt. 5:21, 27). He expects His morality code to guide the attitudes and activities of His people. These directives tend to have relevance only for those who have a relationship with the One who gave them. The items in the ark symbolized the needs of the people before God. The commandments pictured moral needs, the manna typified physical needs, and Aaron’s rod represented spiritual needs.

The Cherubim of Glory

Although what was inside the ark is incredible, its exterior should also be examined. On the cover of the ark, two glorious golden angels protected God’s glory. Facing each other, they bowed downward toward the mercy seat with outstretched wings (Ex. 25:17-20; I Kgs. 8:6-7; I Chron. 38:18). Like archangels and seraphim, cherubim are a specific class of angels. They are mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, but only here in the New Testament. Because they are always referenced in conjunction with God’s judicial authority, these angels might be considered His “law enforcement officers”. Cherubim are depicted as powerful and intelligent beings that safeguard God’s holiness. In the garden of Eden, cherubim guarded the way to the tree of life, forbidding man’s reentry (Gen. 3:24). Cherubim were embroidered into the inner veil of the tabernacle (Gen. 26:31).

The Mercy Seat

A solid slab of gold was crafted to fit atop the ark (Ex. 25:17). The cherubim were formed from this same piece of gold and integrated into this covering. The “mercy seat” bespeaks a position, like a seat in the senate or congress. It refers to a place from which judicial authority is exercised. The heartbeat of the tabernacle was atonement – and the mercy seat was designated as the place of reconciliation.

The Hebrew word for “mercy seat” is kapporeth, meaning to “cover or conceal.” It is closely linked with the term koper, meaning “to ransom or redeem.” The Biblical use of this word is used in connection with the removal of sin (Isa. 28:18). The covering of our sin is dependant upon God’s mercy. God said He would commune with man from above the mercy seat, between the cherubim (Num. 7:89 & Ex. 25:22). The Psalmist cried, “You that dwell between the cherubim, shine forth” (Ps. 80:1).

In Greek, “mercy seat” is hilasterion, meaning “the propitiatory.” “Propitiation” refers to the atoning price paid for sin, resulting in reconciliation between man and God. He manifested Himself as being propitious to sinners as the blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:15). When sacrificial blood was applied there in obedience to God’s directives, He extended His mercy. Paul uses this term when he refers to Jesus as our hilasterion (Rom. 3:25-26). This is what the Publican meant when he cried, “God be propitious (a seat of mercy) to me who is a sinner” (Lk. 18:13).

The writer concludes his list of tabernacle furnishings by stating that it did not suit his purpose to elaborate on them (v.5). His statement should serve to caution those who tend to become lost in trivial details and typology. In the end, all the wondrous beauty and pageantry of the tabernacle was but a faint shadow of heavenly realities.


Hebrews 9:4-5

1. According to II Chronicles 16-21, when King Uzziah offered incense in the temple, he:
A. died
B. became a leper
C. confessed
D. committed suicide
E. none of the above                      

2. What was the first temple furnishing built at Sinai?  (Exodus 25:10-22)       

3. The ark was also known as:
A. The Ark of Thy Strength
B. The Ark of Jehovah
C. The Ark of the Lord
D. The Holy Ark
E. All of the above

4. God taught the Israelites to regard the ark as a box with magical properties. True or False?

5. Once a year, the Israelites were invited into the tabernacle to see the ark. True or False?
6. According to Joshua 3:15-16, what action of the priests caused the waters to stop flowing?

7. According to I Samuel 6:19, how many men died after some dared to look inside the captured ark?                 

8. The ark found a temporary resting place in who’s home (II Sam. 6:11-12).

9. The Ten Commandments are:
A. an eternal statement of principles for living
B. mostly prohibitions
C. a revelation of God’s character
D. a revelation of God’s values
E. All of the above                                

10. What was the Publican’s only request? (Luke 18:13)

11. The sweet aroma of tabernacle incense typified prayers ascending to God. List several important things you need to pray about.


Maxim of the Moment

If you risk nothing, you risk everything. - Geena Davis